Dale Ann Bradley,
Don't Turn Your Back
(Compass, 2009)

Bluegrass was more reluctant than its cousin, country music, to accept women at the front of the band. Today, however, the female presence in the genre is inescapable, thanks to creeping enlightenment and to the huge influence of Alison Krauss, one of bluegrass's rare crossover stars.

Among this generation of bluegrass women is the much-respected Dale Ann Bradley. A native of Kentucky, Bradley grew up in poverty so severe that electricity and running water were unknown, and in a preacher's family so strict that musical instruments were proscribed. In her adult years she was a regular on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and a member of the latter-day Coon Creek Girls. She's one of the best singers in bluegrass, winner in 2007 and 2008 of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year.

On Don't Turn Your Back, her second Compass disc, she showcases her sound, modern but tradition-accented, to agreeable effect. The material she's chosen comes from contemporary and older sources. In the former category a reviewer finds what reviewers look for: cause for quibble. Christie McVie's "Over My Head," learned from a Fleetwood Mac album, seems to me to be no more than a standard-issue pop song that doesn't translate convincingly into bluegrass. "The Last Thing on My Mind" is not the beloved Tom Paxton classic, covered for the hillbilly ages by Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, but a not-bad, not-great song of the same title from the pen of Al Anderson. One wishes Bradley had gone with Paxton. These constitute the album's two weakest moments in a body of otherwise-solid material.

Most stirring of all are the sacred songs "Heaven" and "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," delivered with conviction and power sufficient to rattle the hardest-core unbeliever. At the same time, Bradley has the puckish sense to pick Bob Merrill's "Rusty Old Halo," a gospel song with a serious message but also a rich sense of humor.

Bradley is only an occasional songwriter -- Don't Turn has only two of her co-composed originals -- but they're more than worthy of inclusion. "Ghost Bound Train," written with Louisa Branscomb (solo composer of a couple of other good cuts), grows out of a particularly inspired metaphor, presumably taken loosely from the 19th-century folksong "Hell Bound Train." The old-time ballad "Blue Eyed Boy" is another standout cut.

Bradley is joined by, among others, the distinguished likes of Alison Brown (on banjo; she's also Bradley's producer and the owner of the Compass label), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Mike Bub (bass), and (on vocals) Claire Lynch and the revered harmony duo Dailey & Vincent. Don't Turn Your Back is a rarity: an album that should appeal to both committed fans and neophytes who would have sworn they didn't like bluegrass.

review by
Jerome Clark

6 February 2010

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